Sunday, May 18, 2008

A Tale of Two Epics - Ben Hur

I recently got my hands on the four disc set of "Ben Hur". This movie is often considered one of the best made epics of all time, and at the least the best made epic of the 50's. What made this box set extra intriguing for a film geek like me is that it included the 1920's silent version of the movie as well a a bunch of documentaries about the making of the 50's version.

So in the course of a weekend I watched the silent version and the full blown 50's epic. I was amazed by how similar they were and at the same time the key differences between the films.

Each film is a product of it's time. Both pushed the envelope for scope and wow factor in their decades. Both cost a small fortune to make and pleased audiences and critics in their day.

The silent film is shorter than it's color counterpart. The narrative is the same but it comes in at around two hours. It moves briskly from plot point to plot point. The viewer is pulled in by the adventure story. One of the key differences between the two films is how they handle the large scale ocean battle. In the silent, actual boats were built and put to sea. What you see is what you get, with what looks like a pretty good sized fleet going at it. The 50's version uses models as well as rear projection and sets to pull off the same thing. On this side of things the silent is more exciting and realistic.

However the acting in the silent film is just what you'd expect for this type of movie, over-exagerated facial expressions and hand gestures. Some of it will have modern viewers giggling, as will the amount of make up the lead actors are wearing (should Judea Ben Hur have such curly eye lashes?)

On the flip side, the 50's version of the film clocks in at just under 4 hours. This is epic in every sense of the word - huge sets, lots of color, filmed in 70 millimeter cinema scope, a massive orchestral score by Milos Rozsa, and of course Charleton Heston as Ben Hur. This film was made at a time when films felt they were really competing with television for audiences and so they pulled out all their tricks to get butts in seats. This movie is huge, opulent and massive.

It is also very, very slow moving in almost all the dialogue scenes. There is a pause after each sentence, followed by a glance or meaningful look. Some scenes that should only take five minutes are stretched out the twenty or so. The worst offenders take place before the intermission, when you know the chariot race is coming, but the movie is just taking all the time in the world to get there.

But when the race gets there, it's worth the wait. The chariot race is still awesome, full of color, action, motion and intensity. But do you know what? The silent version tops it. I'm not kidding. I think it has to do with the camera work, but for some reason the chariot race in the silent is even more immersive, even if it seems to lack a bit of the scale of the 50's version.

The acting in the 50's version is better, if it wasn't for the languid direction it would probably be more effective. In addition, the integration of the love story works better in the 50's version. In the silent, Esther seems more like an side character. In the color film, she is much more important to the story and to the development of Ben-Hur's character.

Both films handle the biblical side story with equal skill. Interestingly, both films choose not to show the face of Jesus, but just enough of his iconic clothing and settings to let the audience know who the character is. In fact the 50's version goes one better and you don't ever hear Jesus speak. In the silent, he does "speak" and in verses from the gospel no less.

Both films also go for a stylized look at the ancient Roman world. This seems heavily influenced by the Neoclassical painters of the 1800's. It's a beautiful looking world, but probably not very realistic.

In the end, I think the silent film is a more entertaining film, especially because of it's brisker pace, explosive sea battle and unstoppable chariot race. That's not to say the 50's film was a slouch. It is a great movie as well, just know that it takes it's sweet time going anywhere. But the scope and spectacle are worth seeing at least once, and the score is excellent - even on CD if you enjoy your film music without the film.

After seeing these two versions of the same story, it made me wonder if more silent films should be remade. No one watches silent films any more, except for film geeks. And they made some great films back then. These would be ripe for some re-imagining and if done right could be great movies of today. Imagine someone like Peter Jackson, James Cameron, Ridley Scott or Steven Speilburg behind the camera for a remake of "Metropolis". Now that would be something.

Do you have a film you enjoy in it's original and remake form? Can you think of any silent films that would make great remakes? Or do you know of a movie that was such a product of it's time, but if it was revisited would be a great film now? Or do you think that all remakes are just plain evil?

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